It would seem that selecting the royal purple robes that will set us humans apart from the beasts and various automatons of modern life is an increasingly limited game. Remember the good old days when what separated Humans from everything else was that we made tools? Oops, all kinds of animals make tools. Well, then, language, yeah that’s the ticket. Language is a uniquely human attribute that raises us up from the organic rabble. Hmmmm. No. Not only do many species have nuanced communications, but with some patience, some can even master a limited range of our vocabulary and syntax. More than we can say about ourselves for theirs.
Well, o.k. Lessee here. [Sounds of drawers opening and papers being shuffled]
What do we have that distinguishes us, assures us of a special place in the cosmos? Soul? Art? Emotion? What do any of those mean? How do we measure any of them? As purple robes, any one of them or all of them together remain a bit diaphanous for going out into the cosmos. Could it be the emperor has no clothes?
Does it really matter? In the inevitably cyborg future that we face, how critical is it to be able to distinguish the human from the non-human? It is tempting to shrug our collective Analog shoulders, tidy up around the Analog Underground offices, hang a “going out of business” sign in the window and turn out the lights one last time.
Ah but if we give up on this conversation, don’t we also give up on the idea of our higher selves, our finest human moments that, measurable or not, transcend mere physics, time, and data?
I’m not ready to let that go. This quest for the royal purple of humanity is not so much vanity as it is benchmark. To bring our higher selves into being, we must choose what it is we value most and then manifest that value. Easy to say, hard to do and yet made more urgent as we’ve gotten more adept at capturing and replicating various incarnations of ourselves in the Digital web.
Every new Digital capability, every turn of Moore’s law, every big data set, every new robot, it’s all about capturing, replicating, and amplifying more of the human experience. The amplifier doesn’t care whether it’s playing Bach, John Cage, or the pimply kid in your neighbor’s garage. The amplifier doesn’t care, but we do or at least we should as we rush forward into a world of Digital friends, Digital teachers, Digital caregivers, Digital lovers. As we hand more and more of the essential human experience over for Digital replication, extension and amplification, the existence of our future transcendent moments depends on the quality of our Digital work.
It has always been true that our understanding of the essence of being human has fallen short of perfect clarity and as that gap has grown or shrunk, so, in equal measure, has human misery. Lord knows, everybody has limits to the suffering they can endure. We have an instinct to remove ourselves from it, retreating from the confusion, ambiguity and randomness behind castle walls, corporate offices, and computer screens.
However retreat will not carry us to those moments we all yearn for, when suffering is overcome, when we can see our true essence as something good, and noble, and worthy of struggle. I think of a friend who, even as Sandy was battering other shores, was laying foundations and raising walls for a small cottage in Bay St. Louis on land wiped clean by Katrina. We grow our understanding of the essence of being human and our capacity for joy when we come out from behind the castle walls, the offices, and the screens. Nothing in this Digital age has changed that dynamic.